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Sermon : Sodom and Gomorrah

Constantine and Christianity

23 February 303 brought about the Great Persecution.29 Up until this day, Diocletian had left the Church in relative peace.30 Although the reasons behind the sudden and unexpected persecution are uncertain, most assert that the bloody persecution was not the work of Diocletian but of one Galerius.31 Within this time of peace, many pagans still clung to the old way of things, and continued to blame the Church for all of Rome's sufferings.32 After all, Christians worshipped only one God and therefore invalidated all the pagan gods.33 Pagans believed that because of this neglect, their gods became angered.34 Galerius was one such zealot, and held influence upon the emperor as Caesar.35 Galerius had previously defeated the Syrians (298 AD), returning Mesopotamia to Roman rule, and thus viewed by many as a great hero.36 A series of incidents then occurred in the armies of Syria and North Africa that raised fears in the mind of Diocletian regarding the reliability of the Christians.37 Consequently, the emperor had the army and civil services cleared of all Christians.38 Then war broke out against the Christian Church. In addition to the annual offerings to the emperor, instituted by Decius, the Great Persecution saw churches destroyed, Christian writings - including Scripture - burnt,39 and bishops captured.40 Some believe that Diocletian had every intention to stop short of bloodshed, but poor health incapacitated him in the winter of 303-304 AD41 - possibly a nervous breakdown some attribute to the tensions of action that struck so near to him.42 With the emperor ill, control was passed to Galerius, who increased the persecution, including all Christians and not only the leaders, with a day of general sacrifice.43 Diocletian eventually recovered, but stepped down from office, accompanied by a reluctant Maximian, in 305 AD.44 Thus, Galerius became Augustus in the East, and Constantius was crowned Augustus in the West.45 Although Constantius was not a Christian, he was in fact a monotheist,46 and kept the persecution of Christians at a minimum, even while it raged most furiously in the East.47

5 May 311 AD saw the death of Galerius from disease.48 On his deathbed, he revoked his decrees against the Christians, granting them liberty of worship, and even solicited their prayers for not only his recovery49 but also the well-being of the Empire.50 A renewal of persecution of the Christians would be later encouraged by Maximin who disagreed with this withdrawal from Galerius.51 However, Licinius, who would rule in theory as colleagues together with Maximin in the place of Galerius over the East, desired to see peace created among the people.52 Constantius continued to rule in the West until his death at York in 306 AD,53 where his son, who managed to achieve the permission of Galerius to visit his ailing father, was declared Augustus by his troops that very day.54 With this act, the tide would turn not only for the Empire, but also for the Christian Church. First, however, Constantine had to conquer the rebel-emperor Maxentius - the son of Diocletian's junior emperor Maximian - who was in control of Italy.55 Constantine had already defeated and killed Maximian in 310 AD,56 after his attempt to regain power,57 and now, in alliance with Licinius, had to subdue Maxentius.

It is here that we have reached the infamous Battle of the Milvian Bridge, and Constantine's impending conversion. In the spring of 312 AD, Constantine crossed the Alps and fought his way to Rome, reaching the city in October.58 He and his troops camped north of Rome, along the Tiber River,59 and the fear of a winter siege was at the forefront of Constantine's mind.60 For Maxentius, the conditions were favourable and he was persuaded to advance into battle.61 Constantine, unsure of his chances, was in dire need of help.62 While Eusebius notes that Constantine saw a vision, later receiving a dream, and Lactantius only mentions the dream, both agree that Constantine was indeed instructed to put a particular sign on his soldiers' equipment.63 Whether that sign was the cross or the chi-rho is still widely debated, but what is unanimously acknowledged is that Constantine attributed the visions and instructions to the Christian God.64 The instructions were simply the words hoc signo victor eris, which would mean 'in this sign you will conquer.'65 Constantine followed the instructions, engaged the enemy, defeated, and killed Maxentius the evening of 28 October 312.66 Constantine entered Rome the following day and was fully convinced that the Christian God had given him the victory.67 In June of the year 313 AD, the Edict of Milan was published, which granted liberty of worship to not only the Christians, but also to all the people in the Empire.68 However, the Christians were noticeably favoured, as full restitution was granted them: Not only was their right of worship assured, but their property was handed back to them.69 Constantine inherited a monotheistic belief from his father, Constantius, of one supreme God - a belief that was more than merely that there was 'something' there.70 After the events at the Milvian Bridge, Constantine became convinced that this God of the Christians was the god whom his father had worshipped.71 Indeed, he would arrive at the conclusion that in this Christian God, and in Christ Jesus, the virtues and power that were associated with Apollo and the other pagan gods resided truly and fully.72 Thus, the favour of this one God was of great value to Constantine, and he set out to do what would please this God, whose favour he desired.73 Therefore, ten years of persecution ended with the Edict of Milan, and everything would turn in favour of the Christian Church - for better or for worse.

  1. W. H. C. Frend, The Early Church (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1965), 128.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Mattingly, Roman Empire, 57.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 48.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Frend, Early Church, 129.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Mattingly, Roman Empire, 56.
  11. Waibel, History, 11.
  12. Mattingly, Roman Empire, 57.
  13. Frend, Early Church, 130.
  14. Mattingly, Roman Empire, 57.
  15. Frend, Early Church, 130.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Mattingly, Roman Empire, 59.
  19. Ibid., 57.
  20. Frend, Early Church, 134-135.
  21. Mattingly, Roman Empire, 59.
  22. Frend, Early Church, 134.
  23. Smith, Christ to Constantine, 167.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid., 166.
  26. Frend, Early Church, 133.
  27. Smith, Christ to Constantine, 166.
  28. Frend, Early Church, 136.
  29. Smith, Christ to Constantine, 166.
  30. Ibid., 168.
  31. Ibid., 169.
  32. Frend, Early Church, 136.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Smith, Christ to Constantine, 170.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Mattingly, Roman Empire, 59.
  38. Frend, Early Church, 136.
  39. Smith, Christ to Constantine, 170.
  40. Frend, Early Church, 137.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Smith, Christ to Constantine, 169.
  43. Ibid.
  44. Mattingly, Roman Empire, 59.
  45. Smith, Christ to Constantine, 169.
  46. J. N. Hillgarth, Christianity and Paganism, 350-750: The Conversion of Western Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969), 46.